"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Valerie (United Artists, 1957)

More a courtroom drama than a Western

Valerie is a black & white late-50s courtroom drama which happens to be a Western but which could just as easily have been set in the 1950s. It’s average.

It stars Sterling Hayden and was his fourteenth Western, coming between The Iron Sheriff and Gun Battle at Monterey. Hayden despised the Westerns he was in, doing them for the money, but in the early ones he nevertheless had a tough-guy energy to him. In these later ones he is more obviously just going through the motions.

The other actors are not at all known for Westerns and seem a bit at sea with this one. The director too, Gerd Oswald, had only directed one before, The Brass Legend, a B in the previous year, and the writer of the screenplay also had only worked on one. The whole thing doesn’t ring true as a Western at all. It just doesn’t look like one.

Westerns and courtroom dramas don’t usually mix because trials are static affairs with everyone sitting down and no guns, horses or Western scenery. Good Western/courtroom dramas are few and far between and when they do occur, as with Sergeant Rutledge, for example, they depend on action flashbacks. The Return of Frank James manages it but, as I say, they are rare.
Hayden. Stern.
Valerie has a very dramatic opening. Farmhouse, seen from outside. Hayden walks sternly up the path in and in the front door with another man. A lot of shots are fired inside, then Hayden walks out alone and rides off. The dog in the garden barks, then noses open the door to reveal to us bodies strewn all over the floor, and the name VALERIE (you feel it needs an exclamation point) is blazed across the screen.
Dramatic stuff
Thereafter we have a Rashomon/The Outrage approach as the story of how we got to this pass is told by three different people, each with his own agenda. First, the local pastor, Revd. Steven Blake (Anthony Steel), tells how he, though neutral and unwilling to interfere in marital difficulties, and uninterested from a passionate point of view in Valerie, Mrs. Garth (Anita Ekberg), finally feels obliged to help her escape from the clutches of her brutal husband. Blake is convincing and the situation looks black for John Garth (Hayden) who is accused of the murder of his wife Valerie’s family and the attempted murder of Valerie herself – for she is not dead: she was gravely wounded in the farmhouse slaughter but is down at the doc’s, clinging to life by a thread.
Minister on the stand
Anthony Steel was an Englishman (as you can tell from his accent) who was a popular matinée idol at home but was more famous at the time for being Mr. Ekberg. He was married to Anita between 1956 and '59. Quite clever casting in a way because it sows a seed of doubt in our mind that he isn’t being wholly honest when he says his relationship with Valerie was but pastoral and platonic.

Then Garth has his say. His defense counsel (Gage Clarke) introduces him with a weak pun describing how he has known Garth since he was a boy, as young Garth grew to “stirling manhood.” Garth too is convincing as he paints a very different picture: Valerie is a gold-digger and a seductress, who drinks. She refuses him his matrimonial rights and has affairs both with Garth’s brother Herb (Peter Walker) and with the young clergyman. She becomes pregnant by another man.
A gun blazes. Murder?
So, which story is true?

We kind of guess now that Anita will be well enough to testify. And she duly does, from her bed, which can’t have been easy for the actress. The court adjourns to the doctor’s and Valerie tells her version of the “truth”. Now, in this version, Mrs. Garth is victim of someone mentally ill, a man scarred by the Civil War, a drinker and wastrel who married her only for the $15,000 dowry she brought. The violent Garth forces her to write notes to the minister begging him to take her away. Garth wants a pretext for divorce, you see, but one in which he can retain the dowry.
Hospitalized Anita testifies
Rashomon (羅生門,) is the 1950 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa, which was released in the States in December 1951 and greatly influenced American film makers. In that movie, even at the end you are never quite sure of who is telling the truth, and you can form your own opinion, though the abiding image is of the good woodcutter. In a later remake as a Western, The Outrage (MGM, 1964), too, we are not quite sure. Even the final ‘true’ version turns out to be flawed and bunco artist Edward G Robinson has a great metaphor about the truth being like the shell game: now you see it and now you don’t. But in Valerie, this subtlety is taken away from us by the rather coarse ending to the movie, which, however, dear e-reader, I shall not here reveal.


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